Sonia Delauney at Tate Modern

Sonia Delaunay website banner

There’s a well known poster by the radical feminist art collective, The Guerrilla Girls, that

‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’.

And it’s certainly true that works of art in most galleries are overwhelmingly by male artists. So it’s quite refreshing that the both temporary exhibitions currently showing at the Tate Modern are retrospectives of work by females – Agnes Martin and Sonia Delaunay. Tate Liverpool has also had an exhibition by a woman – Dora Carrington- and there’s going to be a major retrospective of the work of Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain starting soon..

There’s been some positive reviews of the Delaunay exhibition in the press, so while I was down in London last week I took the opportunity to go and have a look for myself.

Born in born in 1885 in Odessa as Sara Stern, she changed her name to Sofia Terk when she was adopted when she was 5 by her wealthy uncle, Henri Terk. She started to study art in 1904 at the Art acadamy in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1904. She moved to Paris where she met and then married German art gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde. It was a ​marriage of convenience; for her, to avoid returning ussia and for him, to hide his homosexuality. Udhe introduced her to Picasso, Derrain and Braque, as well as other key figures from the flourishing art scene. They divorced in 1910 and she married Robert Delaunay in 1910.The couple collaborated artistically and although Robert is better known, this exhibition has brought Sonia’s own work and her contribution to the development of Orphism to wider attention.

As a retrospective, the exhibition, previously seen at the Musée dArt Moderne de la Ville de Paris, covers her entire career. Many works on display are from the Delaunay collection at the Centre Pompidou and the collection of Delaunay’s grandsons, Jean-Louis and Eric Delaunay.

The first section is devoted to her early work when she was influenced by Fauvism and German Expressionism and he paintings on display, as well as demonstrating her talent and ability as a draughtsman and painter, are quite typical of those styles.

Sonia Delaunay, Yellow Nude

Yellow Nude 1908

After marrying Robert, they experimented with different approaches and developed a style they called simultanism.

Circular patterns, a dominant feature of her work, began to appear at this time. Sonia Delaunay Electric Prisms 1913

Electric Prisms (1913)

Although abstracts works, Sonia included figurative elements in some of her earlier works,such as this one, painted during the time the Delaunays lived in Portugal where they moved during the First World War

Sonia Delaunay-Terk. Portuguese Market. 1915

Portuguese Market (1915)

One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition was the focus on the applied arts – graphic works for advertising and journal covers, theatrical costumes, dresses and fashion items, fabrics and furnishings. There were examples of all of these on display and, for me, this was one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition.

She worked with Blaise Cendrars to produce a book, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France) Wikipedia tells us

The book features a poem by Cendrars about a journey through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1905, during the first Russian Revolution, interlaced with an almost-abstract pochoir print by

An extract was on display.

“Transsiberien” by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars – source here, via Wikipedia

The Delaunays collaborated with Ballet Russe impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, for a new production of “Cleopâtre,”  in London in 1918.  Robert designed the sets and Sonia costumes, some of which were displayed in the exhibition. They are very striking, even today, and must have made quite an impression in the aftermath of the First World War.

¤ Lubov Tchernyshova en Cleopatre Emil Otto HOPPÉ (1878-1972). Costume de Sonia Delaunay 1918

Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) (1925)

Sonia exploited her talents in the applied arts as a source of income. She opened a shop in Madrid in 1918 and later in Paris. She established her own fashion house in 1925 registering Simultané as a brand name.

There were some examples of her clothes and textiles together with a large number of photographs on display, and a film of models wearing her clothes was projected on the wall of one of the rooms devoted to this aspect of her work.

Two models wearing fur coats

This coat, a particularly fine example of her work, designed for the film actress Gloria Swanson, was on display.

While browsing on the web I found this website which has a good discussion of Sonia’s designs. 

Sonia also experimented with incorporating the poetry of Surrealists and Dadaists into her designs


Robert died of cancer in 1941 while they were living in the South of France, where they’d moved to try to avoid the Nazis (Sonia was Jewish).   Sonia abandoned her career in order to devote herself entirely to preserving and promoting his legacy. She didn’t start painting again until the 1950s.

The last three rooms were devoted to her later works. There was little development in her work during these later years, other than the introduction of black into her palette, and I have to say I started to find it a little tedious looking at the large number of pictures all painted in the same style. But I guess that’s often inevitable with a retrospective. But that’s a minor niggle. Overall it was an excellent exhibition.

Sonia Delaunay Syncopated rhythm, so-called The Black Snake 1967

Syncopated rhythm, so-called The Black Snake (1967)

Sonia lived to a good age. She was 94 when she died in 1979.


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